This is the first of a series of posts on how teams work. There is some updated research to which I have referred (several times) in my other posts on teams. However this series is a deeper dive on a few topics that I have found to be important in creating a successful team. Most of what I have learned in practice over the last 20 years aligns well with the research. There are nuances that happen in action working with real teams that deserve a deeper dive.
A couple years ago I was working with a CEO and his direct team. They were a pretty successful team. However, the CEO wanted them to create higher performance in their lines of business and to pursue more innovation and growth in their product offerings. He felt that this would require that they challenge him and each other more and that they make decisions and implement faster. When I started working with them, they clearly got along and there was little friction in their team meetings. They were a bit more candid in the individual meetings I had with each of them, but all but one felt that they had good working relationships with each other and didn’t see much need to work on their team dynamics. For the most part it became clear the CEO was driving this project. This is never a good thing by the way. I like to have a lot more buy-in. So that is where I needed to start.
As I got to know them I started to hear about some of the “meetings after the meetings” and how they let each other down in various ways. I observed that their divisions were way more interdependent than they realized (or admitted) and there was more friction at the next level because they were missing deadlines and not handing off projects to each other’s teams as promised. It became clear to me that they didn’t have real trust. Here are some behaviors that tell me a team trusts each other:
It is a big bonus if they perform AND can demonstrate that they care about each other as people. To be a successful team, you need both. You might be thinking, “Well such perfect teams don’t exist.” I would agree that they are not the norm. But teams that actively work on trust, and it is work, reap the performance rewards. They also tend to like each other more. To be clear, being honest does not mean you can be a jerk. Being a jerk is largely ineffective and can undermine team cohesion in a big way especially if you take it to the point of being a bully. That is a subject for a whole other post.
Teams need to talk about what signals trust for them. Once they agree on this and ground rules, they can start to hold each other accountable. With the team I referred to earlier, I can identify the day they started making progress. In a meeting the CEO was asking why an important project was so behind. It turns out that two of his direct reports who were mutually accountable for aspects of the project, had yet to discuss. He looked at the two executives and said, “You two always say what a great relationship you have. I will say that I have to doubt that. If you can’t trust each other enough to hold each other accountable, you don’t have a very good relationship. So we really do have work to do.” He was right.
I believe that our work and relationships at work serve as an important lab for our “growing up”. Most of us arrive at our first jobs barely formed. If we are lucky we have lots of enthusiasm and energy to make up the serious lack of skills. For highly technical folks this may be less true as their undergraduate degrees or training may involve more hands-on practice, building and “making”. But most of us are still learning about the “world of work” when we get our first real job and we have big developmental leaps ahead.
Growing up at work, much like general life, is equally as uncomfortable as it is fun and exciting. The percents will vary for each of us at various times. We will work on fun projects with people we respect and admire. And there will be times when we work on projects we dislike (or find futile) and with people we don’t like. When the latter happens, even when we are advanced in our careers, I believe it is a golden moment. In my experience, not liking something or someone is much more about us than about the project or the person. If we are open to observing and exploring the discomfort, it can provide a fruitful line of inquiry. In so many ways learning to work with a difficult colleague or on a project we don’t like helps us find out who we are and develop new skills. When we come through a challenge, we have a possibility to become more skillful: more adaptable, humble, and more compassionate for others, and ourselves. As in Taoist teaching, challenging work and people are like water over stones, always uncovering more facets of who we are while rounding out the rough (or unskilled) patches.
Often leaders hit a point in their careers where they don’t experience as much, if any real challenge. They will have business challenges for sure. But at the upper levels of management, they will be handing most of these challenges off to their team. The real challenges become much more about inspiring peak contribution of each member of your team and the performance of your organization as a whole. At the highest levels of leadership it is less realistic to expect our direct reports to challenge us to grow. The stakes are often too high. We need more challenge to come from our peers, boss and board.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard members of a CEO’s team say, “We all actually get along really well. The real conflict is at our next level. They can’t seem to get along!” Pardon me if I am skeptical. In my humble practitioners experience, it is way more likely that all the things that you are not discussing or resolving at your level, are handed down a level. The unresolved disagreements that exist on the top team are being played out at the next level.
Many leadership teams need help to become more open and honest in their meetings. It can take time and practice. Sometimes it will require changing the composition of the top team and creating greater psychological safety to discuss the “undiscussables”. A skillful internal consultant can sometimes help or collaborate on this. But often this role is too dangerous. There is always a chance that in their discomfort the team will blame and reject the facilitator. This response, though ineffective, is understandable. For this and myriad other reasons, there can be great benefit from leveraging an external facilitator.
We all need to be challenged at every stage in our careers. The opportunity to learn, grow and “grow up” never ends. We can always learn and get better. Most of us require the challenge of others and support through the inherent growing pains. Feeling more confident and skillful saying whatever needs to be said and doing what needs to be done in service of creating a great enterprise, makes it all worth it.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.